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As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party holds its leadership election Wednesday, a key question for many Japanese and outside observers remains the candidates’ positions on China.

While there appears to be little space between the two leading candidates, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and the vaccine czar and administrative reform minister, Taro Kono, there is deep concern among parts of the LDP, including senior leaders, about Kono on this issue. It will have implications for governing if Kono does indeed win the party ballot and the LDP prevails in the national election that will follow.

China is a rival with Japan for regional leadership and has irredentist claims to Japanese territory (the Senkaku Islands and even Okinawa in more expansive moments). Japanese are nervous about Beijing’s argument that it controls the South China Sea, which straddles the sea lanes that carry this country’s vital trade. A conflict with Taiwan to realize Beijing’s long-held dream of reunification with China is considered a threat to Japan’s own security, one that is growing ever more real and immediate.

That foundational view of China — friend or foe, insatiable aggressor or mere defender of long-denied national interests — shapes thinking in Japan about the utility and significance of the alliance with the United States and the contours and content of national defense policy.

Security concerns are balanced — for some Japanese — by dependence on China for economic growth. When Trump administration officials pressed for decoupling as the U.S.-China trade war intensified, business executives here professed that the China market was central to their future plans and growth strategies. The next prime minister, like his last two predecessors, will have to thread an ever-shrinking needle between national security and economic interests.

The four candidates in the race for LDP president — Kishida, Kono, former Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi and LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda — have similar views toward China. All express concern about Chinese behavior and back a strong military, a robust alliance with the U.S. and strengthened ties with other partners to check Chinese revisionism. All back increased military spending.

That forward-leaning posture is complemented by a readiness to engage. In a debate at the National Press Club, both Kishida and Kono, the two front-runners (according to multiple opinion polls and a Japan Times headline earlier this week), endorsed dialogue with Beijing as well.

For the most part, however, there is a belief that Japanese policy toward China is set, and any real change would mean trouble for the alliance and for the U.S. ability to counter Beijing’s revisionism, given the central role Japan plays in that effort.

Quietly, however, some senior LDP officials worry about Kono’s China policy. They point to his decision as defense minister to cancel the planned deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Some note that he was the only candidate who did not endorse a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act (which would impose sanctions against human rights violators). Kono declined to comment on the issue, saying that “human rights violations should not be tolerated,” but the task should be taken up by the Diet, not someone running to head the executive branch. He added that he would pursue cooperation with like-minded governments.

Those senior party officials are not alone in their opposition to Kono. There is a group within the party that is increasingly hostile to him and increasingly vocal in their complaints. They criticize his readiness to engage with South Korea, especially on the “comfort women” issue. This group is also dismayed by his reluctance to visit Yasukuni Shrine.

The critics also allege that Kono will use the institutional reforms of the last decade that centralized power in the Prime Minister’s Office to impose a softer line in China policy throughout the bureaucracy. Ultimately, they worry that he is a wild card and that his independent streak could jeopardize relations with the United States.

Americans aren’t worried. An informal survey of Japan hands and U.S. officials revealed no concern. They rejected the assertion that he is soft on China. They acknowledge that he favors greater self-reliance and some expressed concern about the Aegis Ashore decision, but all argued that Kono, like Abe, seeks greater capability within the alliance.

More importantly, they all underscored the comfort level U.S. counterparts have had with him in his various capacities — and he has had a lot of experience, serving as minister of both foreign affairs and defense. They point to his command of English and his familiarity with the country. (He is a graduate of Georgetown University).

Several U.S. experts point out that Kono’s popularity — he garnered near 50% support among the general public in opinion polls last weekend — could mean that he has the solid base that could translate into longevity in office. That was foremost for every U.S. interlocutor I canvassed. As Jeffrey Hornung, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. who specializes in Japan, explained in a recent Nikkei article, “Japan is consequential only as long as its leaders have the political stability to do consequential things. If we are on the cusp of another period of revolving leaders, Japan’s ability to be that consequential power may fade.”

The question then is how far opposition in the LDP will go to frustrate a Kono administration. His reputation as a maverick is built upon tension between himself and the old guard but he appears to be moderating positions to accommodate those opponents. Unfortunately, there are indications that he cannot go far enough to satisfy this part of the LDP. Vicious infighting from the far-right of the party could destabilize an administration that would enjoy support from a broad swath of the public, rendering even a popular prime minister practically a lame duck upon election.

The immediate analogy is to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who cultivated his own reputation as a maverick while he was in office from 2001-2006. He ended the revolving door at the Prime Minister’s Office, stood tall on the international stage and consolidated the alliance with the U.S as one of George W. Bush’s closest allies during the first years of the war on terrorism.

But Koizumi covered his right flank with annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which helped blunt some of the distrust and concern his policies generated among conservatives. Kono doesn’t have that shock absorber. The result, should he prevail in the runoff that looks increasingly likely, would be vicious internecine fighting. That could be why the tide appears to be turning and why, despite his popularity with the general public, it looks increasingly likely that Kishida will prevail in the second round vote.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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